Worship Leading, Writing, Mission & The Gospel: My Matt Papa Interview

by Bobby Gilles

in Interviews,Songwriting/Hymn Workshop,Worship Leading

Head shot of worship leader, singer-songwriter Matt PapaI met Matt Papa for the first time when he came to my hometown of Louisville two weeks’ ago to record a song for The Gospel Coalition‘s Songs of Luke project at Ear Candy Studios (where Kristen recorded our free The Whole Big Story, and where Sojourn has recorded albums like Before The Throne). I knew Matt was a gifted singer-songwriter and worship leader because of his albums, the testimony of mutual acquaintances and the words he has written or others have written about him in the blogosphere.

The meeting was not a disappointment. Matt is a humble, insightful, inquisitive artist, who passionately lives and speaks the gospel of Christ. We talked about his role as a staff worship leader at The Summit Church in North Carolina, his heart for mission, songwriting and more in this My Song In The Night interview:

Bobby Gilles: You’ve said that a song isn’t just lyrics or melody — it’s a sermon that people will remember. Can you talk a little more about that, and your philosophy behind worship songs?

Matt Papa: Plato said, “Let me make the songs of a nation and I care not who makes it laws.” That in itself says a lot. And Martin Luther, second to the preaching of the Word, placed a high emphasis on music. So, song is such a powerful medium, such an influencer of culture. When you transfer that over to the church world — songs for worship — every song is claiming truths about God. I try to encourage worship leaders to realize they are teaching people theology as they sing, whether they realize it or not, and whether they like it or not.

In I Corinthians 12, there’s no spiritual gift of “leading worship.” There’s no spiritual gift of “music.” Although it is a gift from God, I wouldn’t consider it a spiritual gift in terms of what is used in a corporate body gathering. So, with that said, if you get on a stage with an acoustic guitar you must figure out what you are out of that list, because you’re not just a singer. Your spiritual gift isn’t singing; it isn’t music. Usually the worship leader fits into that category of teacher, preacher, encourager—you’re simply doing that through song. I try to encourage people to take that very seriously because the things people will remember in their old age when they can’t remember their name are songs. Music just has a way of influencing and sticking with you.

Bobby Gilles: In some of your songs like “One Thing” and  “This Changes Everything,” you tell stories. Do you consider that part of your songwriting, that you’re a storyteller?

Matt Papa: Yeah, I’ve started doing more of that. I think that story is a powerful medium. I write a good bit of stuff that is corporate and some stuff that is not—I guess that would fall into the “not” category.

Bobby Gilles: When I think of your music, I also think of social justice. But it’s a social justice that’s rooted in the person and work of Jesus Christ very intentionally. Lyrics like

“If this is true this changes everything, if this is real, I’ve got to tell the world.”

Do you work hard to intentionally make that connection between the person and work of Christ and “we’ve got to do this”?

Album cover image for "This Changes Everything," a worship album by Matt PapaMatt Papa: Yeah, I do. The last album which included “This Changes Everything” –a lot of that album is centered around the response to the Lordship of Christ but also the love of Christ. In my writing, teaching and preaching, I try to root what I encourage and exhort people with not from a place of guilt, not from a place of “You have to do this,” but from a place of gratitude, a place of joy. It’s all in response to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If that’s not there, then it’s just a lot of noise.

The gospel is the thing that melts the heart to bring a person to the place where they want to share Christ, where they want to serve the orphan, where they want to serve the widow. And that’s the goal, isn’t it: love the Lord your God with all Your heart. Love is a response. So, I do try to make a huge deal of the centrality of the cross and the centrality of the gospel. And also about the social justice: go and do.

I think we often fall into one ditch or the other, especially now in the age of the Gospel-centered movement. It’s hard to criticize a re-emphasis on the gospel, but if there’s one downside it’s that the imperatives are de-emphasized. So, it’s just “Remember the Gospel, look at Jesus and you’ll be okay.”

But there’s also this reality that we are sinners and we aren’t in heaven yet so the natural inclinations of our heart aren’t purified yet. So we have to kill our sin, we have to mortify our flesh, we have to love orphans and widows because we’re commanded to, regardless of whether we feel like it or not. James 1:27 says this is undefiled religion. And I want my ministry to have both/and. Obviously the other pitfall is just preaching the imperatives and legalism.

Bobby Gilles: Your latest song, “The Reward of His Suffering” exemplifies what we were talking about — social justice rooted in the gospel, and a great praise anthem as well. Tell me about that song and also about The Reward International.

Matt Papa: “The Reward of His Suffering” is based on a quote. I believe Count Zinzendorf might be credited with the phrase—I’m not sure exactly. But that phrase became a rally cry for the Moravian Missionary Movement in the 1700’s. And the phrase was “May the Lamb that was slain receive the reward of his suffering.” So it was the worthiness of Christ that drove tons of missionary movement and zeal.

The story that popularized the phrase is that two young men were compelled to go to an island and share the gospel with people who hadn’t heard it before. They weren’t sure how they were going to get there so they decided to sell themselves into slavery. They made the decision to go, said goodbye to their family and friends—they were planning on leaving forever—and they got a the ship and set out. As the ship was pulling away one of the  men raised his arm and said, “May the Lamb who was slain receive the reward of his suffering.” It was an epic moment for seeing how the worthiness of Christ drives people to surrender.

When they got over there they were unable to sell themselves into slavery because they were white men and the slave owner didn’t allow it. So instead of going home, they stayed on the island and got normal jobs. And whenever they would see the slaves around town they would share the gospel with them. They just did whatever they could — that’s just such a cool part of the story because that’s what a Christian does.

When you open your Bible and read the command “Go into all nations and make disciples” and you’re a 10th grader or a stay-at-home mom you  think, “How in the world am I going to do that?” But you say “I’m going  to figure it out.” And that’s what they did. So they stayed and made that their ambition. Fast forward 50 years later and when the next Christian missionary showed up after they’d served there for 50 years, there were 13,000 believers on the island.

So I just wanted to set that to music and put the gospel in it. I’ve heard a lot of cool stories from people who have heard “The Reward Of His Suffering” and they say “I feel called to missions now, and this song has been really encouraging me.”

But I think that’s just such a crucial truth to keep in front of us all — those of us who are on mission: what propels us ultimately is not that we might help people avoid hell, although that’s amazing. Ultimately, it’s about more voices around the throne — it’s more praise for Jesus, it’s more “He’s worthy.” It’s the worthiness of Christ that will drive mission. I think Piper said “When the flame of worship burns with the heat of God’s true worth, the light of missions will shine to the darkest people on the earth.”

The Reward International is an organization that my wife and I are in the process of starting. I started an orphanage about five years ago and we have some other ministries and missions that we’re a part of. So this is an effort that she and I are forming and creating, to leverage my ministry, music and our lives for the sake of the nations.

Bobby Gilles: Another thing that you do—you’re a worship leader in the Summit Church worship ministry. Earlier this year they released a worship album, Jesus In My Placethe title cut of which you wrote with Jonathan Welch. What are some of the differences in leading and writing with a church ministry rather than as a solo artist?

Matt Papa: I would say one of the main things is—as I write music as a solo artist, there’s a little more liberty as to what I can do and perhaps say and that kind of thing. And when it comes to writing for a local church it is more specific, it’s honed in, it’s very focused. And I have certain people in mind, you know, “Are these people going to sing this.” It’s helped me in my writing a whole lot in terms of writing corporate songs because I have this 40 year old guy in my church in mind, you know, “Is this guy going to sing this.”

Bobby Gilles: I noticed you co-wrote songs with several others on Jesus In My Place. Does your role in co-writing change depending on who you’re writing with? Or are you always, say, the lyric guy or the melody guy?

Matt Papa: My role does change sometimes. I would say that I’m probably better with melody, but that definitely flexes. I’m usually quickest with melodies, but in writing for corporate worship especially, I care more about the lyric so I wrestle with that a lot more.

Bobby Gilles: Do you all, at The Summit, have any songwriting retreats or workshops? How do those go?

Matt Papa: We do, and they are great. We’ve been doing those for about 2 ½ years now. We usually do a couple a year. For one, we’ll go off somewhere. Then the other we’ll do sort of low-key at the church. But they’ve really helped our guys become better writers. We bring in some people to speak — usually two or three people — to teach a devotional, or session on songwriting, or something more philosophical. Then we’ll just break up into groups and co-write. We’ll have the speakers co-write with our guys — that’s been such a huge thing. With the last label I was on, Centricity Music, we did a lot of this kind of thing and I wanted to bring this in for our church. Our guys have gotten a lot better and are excited about writing.

Bobby Gilles: Are these day-long retreats?

Matt Papa: Usually they’re weekends — two or three days.

Bobby Gilles: So when people co-write at these things, are they assigned to a specific group?

Matt Papa: Yeah, usually the writing experience in the room is varied. So when that’s the case, my preference is to do groups of three people. The issue with two people is that if you have one experienced and one not, then one person might be driving the ship too much. So yeah, I like to do groups of three—with more experienced writers I might do groups of two. I try to be sensitive to knowing who the great lyricists or melody writers are so I can set up the groups accordingly. I try to be careful with the inexperienced guys — if you have a “Type A” person you encourage them to sit back and listen a little more. So I try to coach the guys in that.

Bobby Gilles: I’ve also noticed you’ve done a lot of Scripture songs. Do you find it easier to compose music to a Bible verse or is that actually tougher, given that they don’t rhyme or utilize meter like modern English songs do?

Matt Papa: I think it is harder, especially if you want to call it a scripture song because you have to stick really closely to the lyrics. You might have some liberty, but it is a good bit harder.

Bobby Gilles: How do you do it? Do you just meditate on the passage?

Matt Papa: Yeah, usually it happens when I’m just reading the word, and a light bulb comes on when something arrests me. Usually I’ll write about that — when I’ve had this experience with this verse. That kind of naturally flows forth in song and melody.

Bobby Gilles: So, we’re here in Louisville and you’re from North Carolina. What are you doing here this week and how did you get involved with that?

Matt Papa: The Gospel Coalition is making an album based on the Gospel of Luke. When I heard about it, Matt Boswell and I got together—we often write hymns together. I had this idea to take Luke 15 (it’s divided into 4 sections—3 parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and two sections for the lost son.) So, we wrote a 4-verse hymn each representing a different parable. We loved the idea of writing a hymn that told the story but could be used in corporate worship. It was daunting but we knocked it out. The Gospel Coalition wanted to use it on the CD so I’m here to sing on the recording. You can look for the CD in April, about the same time as their 2013 National Conference in Orlando. 

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